Emotions of Privilege

von Margrit Pernau*

June 12, 2020

If there is one thing that a large majority of articles published, in print and even more in the social media agree on, it is the global character of the Corona crisis. The pandemic has spread to all the countries of the world and it forms part of a global experience – as a grim reality or at least as a threat – for every single individual. This imaginary of a shared plight gave rise to many instances of unexpected solidarity.

Nevertheless, how common are our experiences? Whose emotions do we take into account in the present crisis, and whose do we leave out? Many people certainly felt bored, at least after the feeling of being on an unexpected holiday had evaporated and all the favorite Netflix series had been watched and re-watched. There is no reason to challenge the data that Ying Li and Shabnam Mousavi have presented in their blog post. However, this does not tell the whole story of emotions during the pandemic.

MUMBAI/INDIA - MAY 11, 2020: Migrant workers walk on the highway on their journey back home during a nationwide lockdown to fight the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

To bring in the case with which I am most familiar: India imposed a lockdown on March 24, with a four-hour notice. No relief programs were put into place by the government for those who lost their employment and income from one day to the other, especially in the informal sector. At the same time, buses and passenger trains were shut down. Daily laborers and migrant workers did the only thing that made sense to them in this situation, taking to the streets and  walking home to their villages, over hundreds of miles. The media focused on exceptional cases, on the 15-year-old girl who carried her injured father by bike for 1,200 kilometers, on the sixteen migrants, who had fallen asleep on a rail-track and were run over by a train, but many more died on the streets of hunger and of exhaustion. None of them felt bored, or at least boredom was not the central emotion, we may assume, they associated with the trials of the pandemic. In a less dramatic way, this also applies to people in the global north or even in our immediate vicinity. Those who tried to save their businesses from insolvency, those who had to combine home office with the care of children or elderly family-members, those who suffered illness or had to cope with the death of loved ones will have run through a whole gamut of feelings other than boredom. The pandemic was not only a globally shared experience, it was also an experience which shed a strong light on inequalities – within individual countries, but also between them. Boredom needs security, the feeling that you or your loved ones will not fall ill, or if you do, you will have access to affordable medical care and that at the end of the crisis you will still have a roof over your head and food on the table. Lest we forget, this is not something that can be taken for granted for everyone, even before the pandemia.

Why does it matter so much to widen our gaze beyond our own privileged emotions, those which get featured in talks and studies, and beyond the emotions linked to our position of privilege? Our feelings are triggered by our encounter with the world, by what we sense, what we see, hear, taste or smell – or are no longer able to sense, because we are not allowed to leave our house and mingle with other people in a variety of spaces. However, our feelings also help us make sense of these experiences. Fear or despair are the result of a dangerous situation, but they also alerts us to danger. Boredom, on the other hand, arises in the absence of more intense emotions, it is the reaction to a void, rather than a risk. If we are bored, we interpret the situation we are living through as an inconvenience, but not a major danger or a catastrophe, which profoundly changes the way we live our lives, or even puts our lives at risk. Our emotions and the interpretations of the world they give rise to, shape the actions we take and they guide our judgment on measures imposed on us, as well as the measures themselves. We live through the same crisis, but let us not forget that it affects us in very different ways. Encouraging people to take the crisis as a chance, which allows them to develop new talents, learn a new skill or a new language might make sense if the worst they are facing is boredom from watching and re-watching Netflix.

The same talk addressed to a migrant who is struggling to survive on the road or even to colleagues whose contracts are running out and who have taken to work through the quiet hours of the night while taking care of their families during the day, crisis-as-chance sounds like a useless advice, if not cynicism. Looking at the pandemic primarily through the lens of boredom frames possible and necessary reactions to the crisis in a way, which may well undercut the efforts at a global solidarity.


*A huge thank you to Frederik Schröer and Rukmini Barua for the discussions we had and the helpful comments on the text.

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